Tag Archives: ferghana valley

ode to anwar

After waiting through a minor delay, when Valery’s colleague careened over a huge fender in the road and punctured the gas tank, I had a good idea of the new group. After Valery patched up the tank with some chewing gum and a stick, we continued over the mountain pass into the Ferghana Valley. It wasn’t a great way to begin the tour but they became acquainted with each other and the merciless Uzbek sun.

On our way into the valley, we stopped for tea at a Chaikhana (teahouse) on the side of the road. As we refreshed, a lovely young man came by and greeted us.

“Hello Dear Guests, I am Anwar, your guide to Ferghana Valley.”

He and I were extremely suspicious of one another at first. I don’t book a local guide for that day of the tour, and I wanted to know what he was doing there—and would I be expected to pay him. I suppose that he was suspicious of me only because I was so quizzical and unimpressed.

Not because Anwar Khairullin isn’t impressive. He works hard, dresses well (a real achievement when Ferghana City is home) and is delightfully charismatic.

He started coming around to me when we were at a potter’s home, about the third hour into his impromptu tour. I asked Rustam, the potter, why he and Anwar spoke to each other in Russian, rather than in Uzbek. Rustam explained that it’s because he is a Tatar and Uzbek is not his first language. Anwar overheard and seemed charmed that I’d bothered to attempt conversation with Rustam in my shockingly poor Russian. Since that moment, Anwar grew increasingly affectionate.

I warmed up to Anwar and his not-quite-fluent English skills about an hour later, when he told me how he taught himself English. He started in the tourist business as a porter in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. He spoke no English, but taught himself by immersion, by spending months at a time having to communicate with tourists solely in English. I was impressed. That’s how I’m trying to learn Russian (without classes, I mean, not as a porter in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan) and it’s not easy. In fact, it is more difficult because I am expected to speak largely to Australian tourists in English. Much to my chagrin, total immersion via non-English speakers isn’t exactly an option. Not yet anyway.

So why was Anwar there? It was a business move. He works for the usually inept Uzbek tour company that my Australian tour company uses to book certain services—like our transport to Ferghana. More profitably, he works as a freelance guide. Knowing that his biggest competitor (& Mario’s favorite) works at the hotel where we stay, he met us en route to pitch his services for the next day. Clever; It worked.

And I have no regrets—he’s a great guide. He’s quite an entertainer and presents himself to the tourists as what he thinks a good Uzbek man should be. It’s quite entertaining for me because between his monologues, he talks to me gamely, and drops the facade.

He gives the tourists what they want: a good Muslim boy with offbeat explanations for Uzbek custom. At a local museum, when he pointed out the pounds of heavy, jangling jewelry that Uzbek women once wore, he described them as an ancient security system, “So that men could hear where their wives went.”

Robbie, my favorite tourist, muttered to her husband, “Hmmm. Seems more efficient than checking the odometer.”

Fabulous.

The tourists don’t hear that Anwar is not ethnically Uzbek. He, like Rustam, is a Tartar, and his closest ancestors migrated from Kazakhstan. Nor do the tourists hear that he is an atheist. Nor that men from the East, like him, make very good babies with women from the West, like me. He said this in Russian, so I had to consult his dictionary twice, screw my face up a few times, and wait until he pounded my knee and doubled over in laughter to be sure that he said what I thought he said.

What would his wife say about that? Yes, yes, of course he’s married, and they have a four-year old daughter. Anwar is thirty-two, though I first thought he was about twenty-eight. His wife would expect and accept the infidelity, but I doubt that a genetically diverse baby would be greeted with open arms. Men here are only allowed one wife, but many, many lovers. Monogamy is not practiced here, not by men.

Incredibly, I find Anwar’s direct approach refreshing because he’s fun and I like him. He’s up-front and he takes no for answer in good nature. Time spent with him is amazing. He behaves the way American men must have fifty years ago. The lines are incredible—references to the moon and the starts, the whole works. I just can’t believe that he thinks I’ll buy this stuff, but he earnestly does.

“I can’t find where your passport saying you are married or not,” Anwar commented after snooping through my passport on day one. Before I snatched his to snoop in turn (all Uzbeks have to carry passports locally so that they can be thoroughly harassed by the Militsia), he announced, “My passport says that I am Jewish. My mother is Jewish.”

His mother and sister live in Rego Park, Queens, in New York City, about a ten minute subway ride from my last apartment. Anwar has no desire to move to the US and seems extremely annoyed that his mother and sister have decided to emigrate.

“If I lived in New York, I would never have the chance to have such a beautiful woman in my car,” Anwar spewed.

“Sure you would. All the time. You’d be a cab driver,” I quipped back.

His point was correct though; he has a great job. In Uzbekistan, tour guides make hard currency. This makes them wealthy, by local standards. On a good day, Anwar can make four times the average Uzbek’s monthly income. He also gets to travel a bit, meet lots of interesting tourists, and come on to them. I wouldn’t move to New York either.

The clock is ticking. In less than two hours I will meet the two Norwegians and begin the next tour. I still have plenty to say about Anwar, Gulnara, and assorted others, but sadly, they will have to wait.

Today I changed dollars into cym with my favorite guy who tends the bootleg music kiosk outside of the government department store. He gave me 720 to the dollar, forty-five over the official rate!

On the way there, I had an interesting conversation about American politics with my Azerbaijani driver. The gist of it was that he quite liked Jimmy Carter and wasn’t it too bad about the way the Iran thing worked out. Funny, that’s the second time this week I’ve heard praise for Carter.

the gownless evening strap

Where are you? Are you listening to the Backstreet Boys? Hopefully not. Peaceful internet use is very, very difficult to come by here [Tashkent]. At the moment I’m in the back corner of a shopping center where an impromptu internet center has been set up. On Friday I was forced out by the oh-so-hip computer geeks’ ability to blast Pink Floyd from their Samsung Syncmaster computers. It didn’t quite drown out Alanis Morisette on the Muzak piping behind. Could I think? I’m lucky the ingrate slurping on his pen next to me is not drooling over porn, like the pervert to my right on Monday.

Two computers away, there is a freak Texan yelling at two Uzbeks who stare blankly at the computer screen with him as he leads a thrilling campus tour.

“This is the weight room. And this? This is our football field. It’s, like, much bigger than this now because we are improving the goal lines (keep in mind that American football is not followed here in Uzbekistan and must be about as interesting to the uninitiated as Bridge. Hey, wait a second, doesn’t a football field have to be a standard 100 yards?) It’s awesome man! This new building is where you can take classes on real estate and retail sales and I, like, walk from here to here, man, it takes about 10 minutes. Now let’s go to the big 12 sports page!” Unbelievable. Who on earth sent him here and why?

This morning I woke at six to sneak off to Hotel Tsorbi across town. The manager there (Victor. I might as well introduce him now) lets me use the internet as I wish. The only problem is that there is always someone who wants to use the machine, and so sooner than later, there’s someone whistling and tapping behind me, in wait of a turn.

This is why I was up at six. I reached the hotel at 8:30 and the Victor’s car was smack in front (why? Shouldn’t he be readying for church with his wife and kids?) The key was in the office door but when I knocked, no one answered. On the second try a girl answered, clearly fresh off the fold out bed. Her female friend glared from behind and Victor, thank heavens, was nowhere in sight. I said in Russian, “Excuse me, I want internet” and gave them 15 minutes to clear out. I felt keenly entitled only because I’d begged permission from Vic the night before.

So, like girls accustomed to being told what to do, they cleared out and I had two beautiful hours of peaceful internet use. Victor left me wondering, once again, exactly to what extent the Hotel is used as a brothel. I’m certain all hotels here are (recall my notes on prostitution a few months back), but I’d love to think otherwise. The waitress and the cook in the restaurant are on 48 hour shifts; two days on and two days off. The services offered clearly extend beyond beef stroganoff and a smile-but I don’t want to believe it. I’ve become quite fond of the staff in the past few months and hope like hell they aren’t subjected to the monsters that stay there (my tourists are the least of them).

Around noon, an office employee showed up and sulked around until I got off the internet and came here. Sigh. At least the Backstreet Boys are the only offenders at the moment; the Texan left.

The tourists.

My worst were crammed onto one horrible two-week tour. I hated them. I don’t know what the trick is; I can’t make people (the tourists) like me. I’ve stopped trying (you doubt I tried? I tried). Some groups just love me. And others? Don’t. I do nothing differently. Guess I have to chalk it up to a personality thing. Better yet, chalk it up to their lack of personality. Thankfully I’ve had only one bad group, but my stomach still gurgles at the thought of them.

Before leaving Tashkent, where the women on the streets wear no clothes, to take my group to Ferghana, the most conservative, Islamic part of Uzbekistan, I asked them to take note and please cover up. When we arrived in Ferghana, we were greeted by two guides: the charismatic Anwar (whom you will hear more about later) and his trainee Victoria. The woman was about 20 and she wore what my group called a gownless evening strap. Appropriate garb for guiding us around the Islamic Valley in midday? No. I was quite taken aback; in Ferghana, this just isn’t done. In Ferghana, women wear clothes.

Later, I commented to Tourist Marcy, wasn’t it quite funny to be met by a young, naked tart after my pleas for decency from the group?

Marcy stared at me and said in a most stern, offended tone, “I really see nothing AT ALL funny about the treatment of women in Uzbekistan.”

Um, okay Marcy. I’ll just keep my mouth shut. This sort of charmless discourse went on for two weeks. Two weeks without relief.

Environment update: Titanic is on the Muzak. This takes me back to Bangkok in ’98 when I spent a week alone in a hotel room, suffering from giardia. I talked to no one; my only company was CNN, the only TV station in English. A Larry King Live interview with Celine Dion aired every six hours and is pretty much permanently engraved in my memory. She’s a nice girl, that Celine. Pretty name, too.

I think I’d best go!

shakhimardan

By my first tour in mid-May, I’d seen a good deal of Uzbekistan, some of it twice. First, on a tour led by Mario, and again when we took another guide around, squeezing in an eye-opening side trip to what remains of the Aral Sea. Mario and I also visited the Ferghana Valley, where my tours would sometimes take me.

He introduced me to Sasha, his favorite local guide, and insisted we visit Shakhimardan, a beautiful patch of Uzbek territory nestled into Kyrgyzstan. It was previously off-limits to almost everyone, but he was fixated on going because he thought it a great future excursion for the tourists and that if he wanted it open, it could be open. He cleverly squeezed us into the back of a little Daewoo Damas that transported locals, where we were hidden from border guards.

When we got out near our destination we were immediately stopped and taken into a militsia compound, where we were held for an unnerving period of time.

The Damas, above,  is more affectionately referred to by locals as ‘bread loaf’. It’s a tiny thing, resting on the axle of a little Tico. It comes up to, in height, my chin. Maybe.

Then they transported us to another compound and questioned us. There were lots of large guns about, carried by very young, aggravated boy-men. Eventually the warden took us out to the street, marshaled a citizen minding his daily business, and commanded him to drive us back to Ferghana City in Uzbekistan, a few hours away. He followed in his military hybrid jeep-truck and when we finally reached our hotel, he first went in to see that we were truly legitimate, registered guests. Surprisingly, we were.

It all seemed harmless enough at the time. Being stopped and harassed by the DAN, the Uzbek traffic police, was a daily occurrence and could cause all sorts of travel disruptions. The border issues and the military did add a bit of intensity, but it all seemed friendly enough. I could only guess, as we didn’t understand a word of what was said. Only later did I understand why Shakhimardan was closed, which Mario knew full well at the time. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a violent guerilla-style Islamic separatist group that controls drug trafficking in Central Asia, was active in the area and six months earlier took four Japanese geologists hostage for two months in the neighboring Kyrgyz mountains. The Japanese government reportedly paid the IMU a few tons of flour and five million USD in ransom for their safe return. The Japanese government denies it, because they, of course, do not support terrorism in any form. In response, the Uzbek military mined the area. None of this troubled Mario, who dragged me into the closed territory without mention of the situation. A few months later, the IMU abducted and terrorized four American mountain climbers who ultimately escaped the six-day nightmare by pushing their keeper over a cliff.

Yes, chivalry seemed more desirable by the day.